During a New York panel discussion on social media and digital activism held Monday, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei secured a promise from Twitter creator Jack Dorsey that his company will offer a Chinese version of its social networking service.
Though Dorsey quickly qualified his response by noting that it may be some time yet before the service will be available for the country, due to technical and legal hurdles.
The exchange took place at the Paley Center in New York, in a session sponsored by the ReadWriteWeb Web 2.0 news site.
“Is it possible to provide a Chinese access on Twitter?” Ai asked Dorsey. “I need a clear answer, yes or no.”
“I would say yes. It’s just a matter of time,” responded Dorsey, who participated by teleconference.
Ai called Dorsey’s answer “very philosophical,” and sighed, “I don’t like to hear that.”
For Ai, the question was an important one, as he sees Twitter as an essential tool for circumnavigating government oversight of communications; For Dorsey it is a loaded question, especially now that Google is considering pulling its search service out of the country due to Chinese government’s demands for the company to censor its search results.
Ai said that the influence of Twitter in China is already great, even though it is blocked for the entire country, with the exception of 50,000 participants.
“In China, we cannot see YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter, and very soon, maybe not see Google,” Ai said. “Basically it is society that forbids any flow of information and freedom of speech.”
There are ways around the Chinese government’s so-called Great Firewall, but they take a fair amount of work, Ai said. Users must sign up for the service using another language.
For China, tweeting can be a rich form of communication. “At 140 words, in Chinese, you can really write a novel. You can discuss most profound ideas really to democracy, freedom, poetry,” Ai said.
Dorsey said that Twitter is working on rolling out a version of its service for all languages, but translation remains a big issue for the company. For instance, the Web may support the Unicode character set, which can include Chinese characters, but most cell phone SMS (short message services) does not support Unicode.
Dorsey said he also isn’t sure how to get the service inside China’s firewall, though conceded that translation would be the problem that needs to be solved first.
If Twitter were to try to offer such a service, it may also face pressure from the Chinese government to filter and censor politically-inflammatory material, one audience member pointed out.
Nonetheless, Ai stressed the importance that Twitter could have by establishing a Chinese service. He had noted that he uses the service eight hours a day, after his blog was taken down by the Chinese government.
Ai is a well-established Chinese artist who has had multiple exhibits around the world, as well as served as a design consultant for the 2008 Beijing Olympics “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium. He has also increasingly run into trouble with the Chinese government as well.
Last June, a blog he started to tally the number of fatalities in a 2008 Sichuan earthquake was shut down by Chinese authorities.
And in December, Ai reported that his Gmail accounts were among those that were allegedly hacked into by Chinese intruders.
“You will become one of the most important heroes in Chinese political development,” Ai told Dorsey.